Community Dividend

Measuring and addressing disparities in early executive function skills

Disparities in executive function skills by socioeconomic status are observed by the time children reach age two

Rob Grunewald | Economist
Ben Horowitz | Community Development Project Manager

Published May 21, 2019

Measuring and addressing disparities in early executive function skills, 3 column
Paula Keller for Minneapolis Fed

Research from a number of disciplines provides evidence that disparities in early experiences are often correlated with family income or parental education. Recent work by Stephanie Carlson and colleagues shows that gaps in measures of executive function skills by family income are observed among preschool-age children—but that such gaps can be addressed with early interventions.

Rob Grunewald ECD video still, 1 column

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Executive function, often referred to as the “air traffic controller” of the brain, can support learning by enabling children to hold new information in mind, inhibit old information, and think about problems in new ways. Executive function can affect a child’s ability to pay attention to a teacher’s directions, persist when frustrated, and develop positive relations with other children.

One classic method to measure executive function skills is the Marshmallow Test, originally conducted by Walter Mischel at Stanford University in the 1960s: A preschool-age child is offered a marshmallow or other treat and the option to receive an additional one if he or she doesn’t eat the first treat over a 15-minute period. Researchers observe the child alone with the treat and record whether the child eats it, and if so, how long he or she waits to eat it.

Although it is never too late to intervene and make a positive difference in somebody’s life, earlier is more effective. Why not focus on the earliest gap we can detect?
—Stephanie Carlson, University of Minnesota

Researchers have found associations between the amount of time children wait to eat the treat and later outcomes in school (stronger academic performance, better coping with stress, higher SAT scores) and adulthood (higher education attainment, lower obesity, fewer drug problems). Carlson and her colleagues analyzed four decades of Marshmallow Test results. Counter to what many may think, given the presence of more screens and other modern distractions, the amount of time children wait has increased over the decades.

“Kids in the 2000s were delaying, on average, two minutes longer than kids had been in the 1960s,” Carlson said.

At the University of Minnesota, Carlson and colleague Philip Zelazo developed the Minnesota Executive Function Scale app to provide a simpler, less reward-focused measure of child executive function.

“We pared it down to a simple game-like app that the kids play,” Carlson said. The app measures performance on games that require executive function skills to succeed.

Results from these assessments show lower executive function skills among at-risk preschoolers, such as homeless and highly mobile children and those living in low-income families, compared with national norms.

“This executive function gap could be crucially important as we try to address school readiness and school achievement,” said Carlson.

The good news is that research also shows interventions that focus on executive function skills can help close gaps between disadvantaged and advantaged children, which can be detected as early as age two.

“Although it is never too late to intervene and make a positive difference in somebody’s life, earlier is more effective. Why not focus on the earliest gap we can detect?” Carlson said.

Stephanie Carlson presented on day one of the Minneapolis Fed’s Innovation in Early Childhood Development and K-12 Education Conference, which took place on October 23–24, 2018. A video and slides from her presentation, “Lessons from the Marshmallow Test,” are available on the conference web page.


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